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Why the academy opening membership to some of the world's less known but most admired writers and directors matters

Why the academy opening membership to some of the world's less known but most admired writers and directors matters
The new class of global artists invited into the academy could change things for the better. (Matt Sayles / Invision)

At least a few of the writers and directors recently invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' remarkably wide-ranging class of 2016 seemed like solid bets beforehand. I doubt that many were surprised by the invitations for Lenny Abrahamson and Adam McKay, both recent Oscar nominees for directing "Room" and "The Big Short," respectively, or Ryan Coogler, whose overlooked work on "Creed" was cited repeatedly in the coverage of #OscarsSoWhite. Nor was it startling to see the inclusions of Phyllis Nagy, a screenplay nominee for "Carol," or László Nemes, the Hungarian director of the recent foreign-language film winner "Son of Saul."

What was surprising was the sheer number of filmmakers who were included despite never having been shortlisted for an Oscar, and who, to their credit, have never seemed particularly motivated by the desire to win one. For cinephiles the world over, to read those lists was to be confronted by a startlingly inclusive who's who of global cinema — and to experience a sense of delight that grew and grew as the genuinely impressive reach of the academy's undertaking came into focus.

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Anyone who has spent any length of time on the film festival circuit — as the academy's president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, certainly has — will be familiar with the names of Catherine Breillat, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Mia Hansen-Løve, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Abdellatif Kechiche, Takeshi Kitano, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Yorgos Lanthimos, Julia Loktev, Lucrecia Martel, Ursula Meier, Park Chan-wook, Lynne Ramsay, Carlos Reygadas and Jia Zhangke. (And the list goes on.) And if you know their movies — many of which eschew the straightforward narrative rhythms and clear dramatic concerns of so much Hollywood and off-Hollywood cinema — you know that their academy inclusion, however richly deserved, was anything but a foregone conclusion.

How thrilling, then, it was to see the German director Maren Ade ushered in on the strength of the rapturous Cannes reception for her brilliant new comedy, "Toni Erdmann." How gratifying, too, that the academy acknowledged that some of our greatest living filmmakers are working in Asia, including Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien ("The Assassin"), South Korea's Lee Chang-dong ("Poetry"), and Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul ("Cemetery of Splendor").

My pleasure at the academy's sense of initiative couldn't quite cancel out my disbelief that some of these titans of world cinema — like Iran's Abbas Kiarostami and the U.K.'s Ken Loach, both of whom, like Weerasethakul, have won the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes — were only just now being invited for the first time. On the other hand, if you had told me a week ago that the Chinese director Wang Bing would wind up on the academy's honor roll — well, I probably would have laughed a lot more than I did during "'Til Madness Do Us Part," Wang's grueling, nearly four-hour documentary about life in the locked-down corridors of a mainland mental hospital.

This is not, to put it mildly, the kind of art that usually lands on the radar of the typical Oscar voter, if such a voter can be said to exist. And though a film like "'Til Madness Do Us Part" certainly fits the standard art-cinema line ("It's not for everyone"), it nonetheless behooves any member of an institution called the academy to recognize the simple truth that every year, some of the most interesting and noteworthy movies are produced outside the U.S., and some of them look, sound, move and think like nothing you're likely to see at your multiplex.

That reality has rarely been reinforced by the academy's own annual awards derby, which is of course wired to promote the interests of the American movie industry first and foremost. The foreign-language film Oscar category, despite numerous smart procedural changes over the years, remains in thrall to an archaic selection process with a needlessly restrictive "one film per country" rule — a state of affairs that invariably keeps any number of superb movies from making it past the submission stage. Even those that do are not guaranteed to advance to the shortlist, as the Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu learned firsthand when his unanimously acclaimed 2007 drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" was inexplicably left off that year's foreign-language shortlist. (Happily, Mungiu is an academy invitee this year.)

Elsewhere, it's telling that even with 10 best picture nominees (up from five in the past), only one import, Michael Haneke's masterful "Amour," has found itself nominated for the top prize in the last decade or so. (Animated films and documentaries, which also deserve a more level playing field, haven't fared much better.) That statistic is pathetically unrepresentative of the actual artistic state of things, and it speaks to the sadly prevailing attitude that the vast majority of international cinema is unworthy of serious consideration.

It will take more than the addition of a few Ciro Guerras and Naji Abu Nowars to the academy's ranks to generate any sort of measurable change to the accepted definition of "Oscar-worthy." As innumerable festival juries have shown us, radically innovative filmmakers are not necessarily radically innovative when it comes to their own tastes and viewing preferences. But the academy's international outreach is still a compelling start. And it drives home a point that has frequently been lost amid the endlessly rehashed discussions of industry diversity — a concept that, whether mentioned in terms of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation, tends to retain a dispiritingly America-centric point of view.

Cultural, formal and aesthetic diversity are no less essential to the cause of a smarter, more discerning and representative body of voters. The kind of cine-savvy, well-rounded academy I dream about is one that can acknowledge not just the beauty of the mobile camerawork in "Gravity," but also the magisterial tracking shot that opens Carlos Reygadas' "Silent Light." One that can savor the intoxicating jungle surrealism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Tropical Malady," and the feverish and atmospheric soundscapes of Lucrecia Martel's "The Headless Woman." Love them or hate them, these are artists who reliably change how we look at the world and at cinema. Perhaps now, too, the long, necessary task of changing how we look at the academy has finally begun.

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Justin.Chang@latimes.com

On Twitter: JustinCChang

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